In One & Two
a new sci-fi film directed by Andrew Droz Palermo (Rich Hill
), siblings Zac (Interstellar’s
Timothée Chalamet) and Eva (Mad Men’s
Kiernan Shipka) play teenagers with supernatural abilities that their parents forbid them to use. Trapped on their family’s farm by vast, unscalable walls meant to keep others out, Zac and Eva explore their powers in secret.
But tensions build when their mother (Elizabeth Reaser) becomes ill and their father (Grant Bowler) sees the siblings trying out their teleportation abilities in an open field. Josh Johnson was the visual effects supervisor and lead VFX artist on the film. Here, he talks about how he used Cinema 4D, After Effects and NUKE to create believable effects, particularly the teleportation scenes, on an indie budget.
You’ve worked with the director, Andrew Droz Palermo on other projects. Is that how you got involved with this film?
Yes, I live in Missouri and Andrew used to, too. I’ve worked with him multiple times, including some of his music videos, a short film and True/False Film Festival bumpers. I also did some effects work for his documentary,Rich Hill, which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. We read each other pretty well. My background is in filmmaking and storytelling and being able to bring that to the VFX world really helps because story is the most important thing. I don’t want my visual effects to be distracting or stand out. I want them to be ingrained in the story as much as possible.
What was the timeline like for this?
I quit my full-time production job to work on this film as a freelancer for about 5 to 6 months. Andrew brought me on as early as he could, and that is really important as the VFX process begins in pre-production because you need to break down the script and devise a plan for the VFX. Phil Benson, the VFX producer during pre-production, was very helpful during that phase. He helped coordinate a lot of VFX teleport process, and just made things easier on me.
Before we started shooting I worked closely with Andrew and Autumn Durald, the cinematographer, on concept design for the teleportation effect. VFX Consultant Eric Leven was also very helpful during the concept phase and throughout production.
The 26-day shoot was in North Carolina. And after picture lock on the edit, I had a little less than two months to get everything finished so the film would be ready for festivals. There are about 56 VFX shots in the film, and I did 25 of them completely on my own, including a full-CG shot. The rest were made by a skeleton crew that I supervised, and then I did the compositing on an additional 14 shots. Fortunately, I’d already been working on some of the effects for about a month and a half before we got the picture lock footage or we never would have made it.
Talk a little bit about the concepting phase, specifically how you came up with the teleportation effect.
That was the biggest thing we had to figure out. We decided that something as subtle as we could get would work best, like teleporting is just something they do. Early on, Autumn, the cinematographer, shot some test footage with Andrew at Panavision and sent it to me so I could start working on the design of the teleporting before we started shooting with Eric Leven. It was pretty tough, teleporting has been done before and we didn’t want to create the same kind of thing.
I knew early on that I was going to use some particle and fluid simulations, even though they took more time to render. We wanted a realistic, yet magical look, and before I started Andrew said: ‘I want it to be light, heavenly and tactile.’ I’ve used Turbulence FD a lot to create smoke and fire effects, so I knew I could do that. I used X-Particles to drive the simulations.
Can you go into a little more detail on your methods?
I did my X-Particles simulation and ran the fluid simulation to get my smoke. For my particle simulations I would add various levels of turbulence and gravity. I also created my own library of smoke effects using this method. So, I could quickly bring them into my comp. Some shots, though, required their own unique simulations.
Everything was rendered inside Cinema 4D. In After Effects and/or NUKE I was able to take all of my simulations and sometimes mix in footage of real smoke, too. More times than not the shots included multiple simulations.
It helped when I was working in post that, on set, during the shoot, the production design team used a leaf blower to create the look of wind whipping up around the actors. That was a key part of making the teleportation scenes work. Anytime you can blend practical effects with visual effects the final shot will almost always end up being better. The finishing touch was a distortion layer to simulate heat distortion when they were leaving or arriving. I got some really good references on set when I noticed heat distortion on the stove Bob Rocca, the caterer, was using.
How was the giant wall that kept the kids trapped on the farm created?
The wall shows up multiple times in the film. It works to keep the kids on the farm because they can teleport, but only as far as they can see. With the wall blocking their line of sight, they’re trapped. It was partially constructed on set for the shoot, but it was only about 13 feet tall and 25 feet wide. I had to figure out how to make it look huge on a budget.
The original plan was to build a CG model of the wall and use that to extend the practical wall. So we hired an amazing artist, Robert Vignone, to model and texture the wall. Then, Ray Sena, our talented look development artist for the wall, lit CG wall shots and also helped with duplicating the wall in 3D. In compositing, I used NUKE and Photoshop to randomize the texture on the CG wall so there wouldn’t be any obvious repeating of the wall texture.
The CG Wide shots of the walls worked great. But when those shots were next to the practical wall, I added a few more techniques to really sell them. I used some of the CG wall combined with a matte painting of the practical wall I created in Photoshop and NUKE. Basically, I used the CG wall as a filler for the wall matte painting I made.
Then I brought the wall matte painting inside of NUKE and camera projected it onto the shot. This was the same workflow for shots that had a moving camera and a locked-off camera. I also used SpeedTree to create animated CG vegetation (rendered in C4D) that was sometimes on the wall or at the bottom of it on the ground. For a few of the hero wall shots toward the end of the film, I created some CG grass renders in C4D to help blend the wall into the shots. VFX is all about non-stop problem solving, but I think that is true for all aspects of filmmaking.
The scene where the house burns down is very realistic. How did you pull that off?
That was a crazy thing to do on an indie film. We were shooting at Horn Creek Farm, a historical farm in North Carolina, so we obviously couldn’t se it on fire. And we couldn’t show the exterior of the burning house close up because we didn’t have time or money, so I suggested that the burning house be shown mostly out of focus in the background of the scene. I worked with a special effects crew and they did what they could to add real fire and smoke as much as we could using smoke machines and fire bars.
We worked with the camera team on lighting, too, so we could do as much in-camera as possible. The gaffer, Brice Bradley, also put lights inside the windows and made them flicker, which helped a lot when it came time to work on that scene in post. I created some digital smoke and fire, and I made a matte painting of the house in Photoshop to make it look burnt. Then, in C4D, I created multiple fire and smoke simulations and then composited them together in NUKE. The shot shown in this story is a rack focus, and we shot the film with anamorphic lenses, which added another layer of complexity in post.
What has the response to the film and the VFX been like so far?
The international premier was at Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) and the U.S. premier was at South by Southwest. It was a lot of fun, huge crowds and a lot of positive reactions. It’s interesting because VFX don’t get talked about much in reviews, but there have been some good and specific comments about them and that’s been pretty surreal for me.
One review called the effects “shockingly good,” and the Nerdist (http://nerdist.com/ifcs-one-two-is-a-sci-fi-super-powered-thriller
) did an article on the film that had the nerd in me very excited. Working on this was pretty intense but also a lot of fun. It gave me the opportunity to create some difficult VFX shots that support a story I care about. It also allowed me to work with Andrew again, which I always enjoy, and with a really awesome cast and crew.
Director: Andrew Droz Palermo
Writers: Andrew Droz Palermo, Neima Shahdadi
Cinematography: Autumn Durald
Editor: Alex O'Flinn
Music: Nathan Halpern
Digital Intermediate Colorist: Alastor Arnold (FotoKem)
Visual Effects Supervisor and Lead VFX Artist/Compositor: Josh Johnson
Look Development Artist: Ray Sena
Wall Modeling and Texture Artist: Robert Vignone
Compositor: Sean Kennedy
Compositor: Youjin Choung
Visual Effects Consultant: Eric Leven
Sound Design: Pete Horner (Skywalker Sound)
Complete list of VFX software used:
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota